Month: February 2016 (page 1 of 2)

The Virtual World is Not Virtual

icognito2I had a strange insight today: We walk among legends.
Maybe.

Here I am ordering my normal Monday lunch at Togo’s Sandwiches: a hot #9 on white with mayo, provolone, lettuce, onions, peppers. Add jalapeno chips and a Dr. Pepper. I patiently wait for my sandwich to be constructed and with a look to the patron on my right, I am struck with the thought that he might be an absolute legend in a world that I know not.

He looks like a normal dude. Vintage Maui & Sons t-shirt. Flip-flops. He eats normal, I suppose, apart from the fact that he like pickles, the most repulsive food on the planet. But, even though the possibility is small, this young man might just be a world conqueror, a magic conjurer, an unholy combination of Chuck Norris and Darth Vader.

What do I mean? In typical Leviathan fashion, let’s take the long way ‘round.

How do we conceive of ourselves? What makes up human identity?

As a Christian, I might answer (with no small amount of piety) that my identity is found in Jesus Christ and no other. Yes. This is true. But you know and I know that the contours of human identity have much to do with the life we experience, the loved ones we surround ourselves with, and the vocation with which God has entrusted us. Who am I? Well, I am first and foremost…
…a man redeemed by the blood of Christ, made righteous by his death and resurrection.
…a man claimed by God in the waters of baptism, chosen and holy, participating in a project of kingdom restoration until God makes his reign manifest for all time.

These are features that cannot be removed, altered or reasoned away—precisely because God himself has declared these realities into being. They are not up for discussion.

Yet, I am also:
…Harrison, Faye, and Benaiah’s da-da.
…Tiffany’s main squeeze.
…Son of Norb and Jackie; brother to Shem, Seth, and Sara.

These particular components of identity, while subservient to my identity in Christ, cannot be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant. This list was not borne of God’s command in the most direct sense, but instead, these identities were made from acts of human will, will that was given in freedom by a God who wants all good things for his children. Family is the first manifestation of human-to-human community found in Scripture, not only the proclamation that it is ‘not good for man to be alone,’ but also that man and woman shall form family-communities of their own, a two-person identity that branches off from their parents into something altogether unique. What I am suggesting is that we cannot halt all discussion about identity by saying ‘we are Christ’s,’ immeasurably true as that fact is.

When I think of who I am, it is not wholly restricted to God’s declaration or my sense of family, for I am also:
…a man who loves to teach theology to students who little or no experience with ‘God-talk.’
…a man who spends his spare time reading young-adult fiction and playing an occasional match of TF2 or BF4.
…a man who is seeking to use his circles of influence to advance thoughtful conversation about transhumanism.
…a man who is desperately trying to grow the graduate program in his care.incognito1

I want to spend the duration of this post speaking to this last level of identity; that is, the way we tend to understand ourselves in light of the activities we perform. While placing my identity in my actions may be less true than my absolute identity in Christ, if I was honest with myself, I would have to admit that my daily moods are most affected by the things that I do, not the reality of what I am. I would love to have the mental and spiritual fortitude to consider all I do as rubbish before the Almighty God who makes me his own, but deep down I know that my efforts in life often define my success or failure as a person. Yikes.

Applying a weird sort of algebra, then:

  • Joel’s identity is safe IF he is able to winsomely communicate theology to brain-dead 19 year-olds.
  • Joel’s identity is safe IF he has influence in theological circles and his graduate program actually grows.
  • Joel’s identity comes into question WHEN his class continually fails to grasp the nature of Law-Gospel.
  • Joel’s identity comes into question WHEN he can’t this, can’t that, measure up to this, hit that number, and on and on.

Identity is slippery—especially when I so easily allow my efforts in life to be the central driving force in my identity’s status. That’s why, when someone loses their job, they often fall headfirst into questions like, ‘who am I, now that this has been taken away from me?’ Without grounding in Christ, the world has two traditional avenues for the individual to conceive of human identity—what the person was born with and what he/she does with his/her life. The first is genetic and sets you on your way for better or worse, and the second is the measuring stick by which you set your life up in comparison to those around you.

But this is changing. Dramatically.

The online world of gaming and virtual reality is now throwing this tidy little system of identity formation into chaos. If you are one of the 180 million active gamers/virtual reality users in the US–or even if you use an avatar-based social platform–you understand that you are more than your genetic code, even more than your actions on this side of the screen. A whole different you is involved in the digital world…it’s still you, but not in the same sense.

While placing my identity in my actions may be less true than my absolute identity in Christ, if I was honest with myself, I would have to admit that my daily moods are most affected by the things that I do, not the reality of what I am.

Author Clay Shirky had this to say about the freshly tilled terrain of modern identity-making: “The old view of online as a separate space, cyberspace, apart from the real world, was an accident of history. Back when the online population was tiny, most of the people you knew in your daily life weren’t part of that population. Now that computers and increasingly computerlike phones have been broadly adopted, the whole notion of cyberspace is fading. Our social media tools aren’t an alternative to real life, they are part of it” [1]. The real and virtual worlds are becoming one.

January 27, 2014, was a normal day. Except it wasn’t. Legends were born. On this day, one of the largest battles in the history of online gaming happened—all because a dude forgot to pay a bill. Read about it here. Eve Online is a spectacular achievement in the gaming industry; it’s a massive multiplayer game set in space with thousands of star systems, a half million subscribers, and a virtual world with its own culture, language, currency, etiquette, and (of course) alliances [2]. And on this normal Monday work-day, all hell broke loose and a grand tale of conquest was born. The battle was so epic, a Wikipedia link was created as if it were real history, akin to the Battle of the Bulge. Over 7,000 players contributed over $300,000 worth of capital ships all to fight over a virtual space station.

“Where were you today? I saw you didn’t come into work…”
“My commander sent out an emergency hail for all available star-fighters. I answered the call and invaded system B-R5RB in an effort to tip the balances of galactic power.”
“Oh.”

Can anyone suggest that these participants, these soldiers(?), weren’t engaged in a real experience of teamwork, trust, and coordination? I would, at this point, encourage Christians to respect this world and not dismiss it as the sophomoric acts of a few college kids, passing the time between Chem 1 and the Duke-UNC game. The third identity—one’s digital identity— is not a way-of-being that is distinct or remote from normal life. It is normal life. One’s virtual existence is NOT virtual; the avatar life is constitutive piece of the individual’s world and his/her understanding of how the world works.

The part of our identity that is borne of the will (that is, what we choose to be) is under terrific stress, precisely because more people are shunning the natural habitat of the Self grounded in traditional definitions of real-ness and moving them ever-closer to the identities they live out in a digital world. Consider that if you asked a person who was immersed in an alternate online identity if they’ve been directly impacted by another avatar or had some sort of presence in an online community, the answer would overwhelmingly be ‘yes.’ Virtual worlds do not create virtual impact. Real worlds do. Therefore, virtual or not, these worlds are having actual impact on our identity. Again, the virtual world is not virtual.

We might walk among legends every day. Who knows if the girl at the checkout counter of Forever 21 moonlights as Orange County’s premier Madden player? Who knows if the middle-aged suit who serves you as an insurance adjuster goes home at night to become a warlock known (literally) by a million other people around the world? Maybe the rusted out Honda Civic you just passed on the highway was being driven by a commander of a space fleet 7,000 ships strong, lost in thought about how to launch the invasion of invasions tomorrow—to be talked about decades into the future. Is it un-Christian to think that these people have real identities, regardless of the real-ness of the world in which these identities are known?

Would you rather be known as the data-entry dude from three cubicles down, or the legendary Imperator who once invaded Jupiter’s moons? I know my answer. And I also know my answer would leave me a little downcast.

If the virtual world is, in fact, the shadow world of choice for many of your friends and neighbors, how can the real world compete?

 

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

[1] Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus (New York: Penguin, 2010), 37.
[2] I once tried to play this game on a free 30-day trial and gave up after day 2 because the learning curve was so steep. It felt like I had been forced to fly a 747 from Dallas to Denver by myself, with only Siri there to help me. Fail.

Under the Sheets, Church-style

This post is part 4 of a 4-part series on the future of sexuality. Much of this discussion requires a mature approach, so handle with care. You can read Part 1 here. Part 2. Part 3.

cannonIn standard Jeopardy fashion, I’m going to give you the answer first:
You plant trees.

Now, let’s go find the question.

The History Channel is amazing. You know this. I know this. I’ve got about a thousand reasons why I like the History Channel, but the central one is quite simple: Being told a story is always better than being sold a story. I’d rather enjoy a bird’s eye view of the Battle of the Bulge along with supporting documents and pictures than hear Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton shill a particular narrative about what makes America, America. Or, ‘Merica, for that matter.

We ultimately love the History Channel because history itself intrigues us on a variety of levels. The witness of the past is full of heroes and heroines, villains, strategies, conquests, and unforeseen consequences. When you have a moment of uncommon clarity (usually with a cheeseburger in your hand), you may arrive at the familiar philosophical question: Why are things the way they are?

Often, the why’s of a particular historical event result from a long line of preceding causes, like those days before the Internet when a boy could be entertained by building long snakes of upright dominoes through three different rooms in the house. All it takes is the first domino to fall and the rest is … well, history.

In the past, the Christian Church (for better or worse) was a central player in this chain of causes and effects. Its hegemony penetrated all areas of cultural life, from art to politics to community relations. Cathedrals were built on the highest ground of the settlement to not only figuratively point people ‘upward’ toward God and the heavens but to also remind the town of the Church’s absolute authority in all matters, sacred and secular. It seemed like every other domino had a cross scribbled on it.

Now, the Church largely chases a culture that has passed it by, like a dachshund nipping at the heels of an Audi. Wholly reactionary, hopelessly behind. Often relying on confessional texts that the world knows not, the Church’s declaration is meant to be the end-all of discussions related to the matter.

Will this be the way the Church operates into the future, when the pace of technology outpaces any attempt to distribute a position paper that was probably written 15 years ago about a topic that is only tangential to the current issue under discussion?

The Christian Church has the opportunity to confront the future by being in the vanguard, not by being left in the van. With that in mind, I propose a set of simple pragmatic principles that the local parish can do to be ready for the host of issues that will come in the next 20 years. Parishes that implement these practices/values will be better situated to form parishioners who speak intelligently and biblically to the coming age of digital/robotic form5sex. Hey Church! Let’s:

  • Dig below the surface to ascertain the deeper need. This requires something that the Church is not particularly good at: Listening. Every time that the Church pauses to hear the cry of the person, the Church can hear the particular needs that Jesus alone can address. Christians can lead the movement from ‘talking at’ to ‘talking with.’
  • Lift up the unique creaturely status of being human. With this comes a simple confession of who we are as the people of God. That is, we are people under authority. We are not unbounded, but submit to the claims that God has on us. Proclaim this to your sons and daughters. Proclaim it from the pulpit and barstool.
  • Open your homes to embodied relationships. Food. Neighborhood. Children. Once the castle gates are lowered, Christians can embrace the shared responsibility they have that comes as a part of the baptismal promise. In my tradition, when a child is baptized the community says together, ‘We welcome you to the Lord’s family. We receive you as a fellow member of the body of Christ, a child of the same heavenly Father, to work with us in his kingdom.’ A shared responsibility, a shared creatureliness under the Creator. How is this supposed to manifest itself when we spend more time installing deadbolts into our doors than we do opening them in hospitality?
  • Preach the sacraments. Preach the Incarnation. I suppose I could just say, ‘Do church.’ But note the emphasis. The sacraments are the means of grace, located in the material elements. Jesus, the Incarnation himself, is flesh and bones. Embodied throughout. Just like our witness, as outlined in 2 Cor 4: ‘We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.’

The Church can and must confront a landscape that they know relatively little about (at least, right now). Sure, they have plenty to offer on sexual ethics … but that conversation is happening at the level of the elites, not translating well to the troops on the ground. The average parishioner has other things to occupy their minds than downloading the next treatise from the Vatican or some divinity school theologian. But the above emphases can serve as an ongoing litmus test that lifts up the embodied life of the believer over and against those forms of communion (even sexual communion) that deny the fundamental binding of physicality to human identity.

The responsibility rests on all of us. Pastors, educators, everyone. The good news is that sexuality continues to be a topic in which every single one of us is interested. The other good news is that addressing the malaise of the digital revolution in sex does not necessary require reading a 450-page tome, written in something that sounds like English but is impossible to decipher. People just need to talk. To have a simple conversation. Shoot, chat over a meal so you can take a bite if you don’t know exactly what to say!

Try talking to your neighbors, classmates, friends, family about the changing nature of our world. Ask simple questions like, ‘What do you think our attitudes about sex will be like in the future?’ ‘How do you think technology will inform the topic of sex as our children look for answers a few years from now?’ I can’t guarantee success or enthusiastic participation every time, but I imagine that, more often than not, your conversation partner will think about and plunge into the conversation with vigor.

Being told a story is always better than being sold a story.

The future state of sex in our culture is a messy swamp; strangely beautiful in some places but largely dangerous for long-term habitation. The effects of exchanging embodied relationships with digital/robotic forms of sexual behavior is malarial, make no mistake. The Church has the opportunity to enter into this terrain, however, before sickness takes hold. Rather than chase after the cultural shifts with cries of ‘OUR DENOMINATION’S POSITION IS ______! OUR DENOMINATION’S POSITION IS ______!’ – perhaps we can ask first, talk second, and articulate a biblical view of the world that is both winsome and full of conviction.

When early explorers were given the unenviable task of clearing out swamps, they found that planting specific types of trees would with time dry the marsh and leave habitable land behind. For example, in Israel, one can find all sorts of eucalyptus trees hanging around, even though their native land is several thousand miles away. Every grove of flourishing eucalyptus trees in the land of Jesus is a natural gravestone for the muck that once made its home there.

eucalyptus

If the cultural malaise is a swamp, then consider Christians as trees. The Christian lays down deep roots to grow and flower in a world that only seems to offer mosquitoes. They, by virtue of their vocation as engaged, forgiving children of God, attract the hurting and lost of the world and offer an alternative … specifically, a life of grace and truth, oriented toward the Author of both.

So now, finally, here is the question: How do you make a (cultural) swamp a beautiful place for human flourishing?

watermark

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Geopolitics of Sex?

This post is part 3 of a 4-part series on the future of sexuality. Much of this discussion requires a mature approach, so handle with care. You can read Part 1 here. Part 2 can be found here. Next Monday, I will address the Church’s role within this storm.

tide1When I started this series, I attempted to lay out a series of outcomes made possible by observing trends in Western society, particularly in regard to technological advances. Sex would look like this. Or that. Society would bend here or there to accommodate robotic and/or virtual sexual activity. But I left out one particular type of forecast: the big picture. If sex increasingly moves toward individual experiences with robotic or VR interfaces, what effects will be generated on a meta scale?

We naturally think of sexual activity as, first and foremost, an intensively private affair. Except in fairly rare cases (and let’s bracket out masturbation for the time being), the act is consummated by two individuals together—and while they may be a community in the tightest sense of the word, a society of two—you might be hesitant to call sex a communal act. No one is allowed (without our permission) to understand the intimacy of the actual act, for sex in every way is utterly unique. Unique bodies, unique chemistries, unique movements, unique reactions. I would go so far as to say that sex is truly creative in both form and function. Its form resembles free-form dancing; its function is to bring life from life. But both parts are accomplished behind a closed door.

Yet sex is utterly tied to community whether we like it or not, and not just communities like families, churches, or neighborhoods. I’m talking about community in the largest possible sense: Nation, People, Ethnicity, Humanity. Nations grow by one of two methods: Procreation or Conversion. One might add war/imperialism to this mix, but I think that’s just conversion through the application of violence. A nation grows when her people have children at a rate that exceeds her deaths (i.e., birthrate). Or alternatively, a nation can grow her population by allowing for immigration (passive) or exercising territorial expansion (active), then moving forward with an intense project of assimilation to create new converts, new citizens if you will. Birthrates are tied to the sexual views of a people, so…

…here’s the remaining prognostications regarding the future of sex:

Our geopolitical world will be altered drastically by the exodus from embodied sexual living to surrogate, solitary forms of sex. More specifically,

  • Since anyone who could afford a technological sex surrogate has access to sexual pleasure (in the basest sense) anytime and anywhere, it could be reasonably expected that men, in particular, would withdraw from the courting community believing it to be too expensive, too emotionally draining, and too difficult to experience success. Not every man, of course, but enough men to do significant damage to national birth rates.
  • The richer and more learned a society, the less children they have. While I recognize that this is not saying they have less sex per se, this demographic will experience an even sharper decrease in childbirths precisely because they have access to forms of sexual pleasure that do not prohibit them from pursuing their careers or life goals. The temptation will be to have their cake and eat it, too. Unrestrained individual fulfillment and sex without responsibility.tide2

These things in mind, I’m inclined to believe that three particular regions of Western civilization will experience radical demographic change in the next 100 years.

  • Japan is already neck-deep in a population crisis: The traditional marriage relationship is dissolving right in front of their eyes. Japanese men are withdrawing from the courting community, preferring online avatars and pornography to the commitment and social discomfort of wooing young women.
  • In the United States, similar trends are developing though birth rates hold shakily around 1.9 (just below the number required to keep a population stable). The one demographic that is propping up the birth rates of American families is the Latin American community, who by and large come from poorer or less educated upbringings and live in urban environments. While white families are having less kids, immigrating families are picking up the slack. I would expect that birth rates alone will increase the Latino/a presence in the US, one that has been noted by many sociologists for some time. I would simply add that the move toward artificial sex partners in middle- and upper-class societies will have a multiplying effect – something very few people are talking about.
  • In Europe, the traditional ethnic groups of native French, Italian, German, and Spanish are disappearing in remarkably quick fashion. Their birth rates all fall between 1.4-1.5 child(ren)/woman. Shockingly low. Yet, with the recent immigration push from Muslim countries (not just Syria), one can expect that these countries birth rates will skyrocket…solely on account of the Muslim families. It is safe to say that my children’s children will not know Spanish or French or German culture except through artifacts and museums, because the people themselves will have largely died off. Time and mathematics, folks.

What are the causes of these low birth rates? While many would argue (and rightfully so) that an educated society is more likely to use birth control and therefore, keep population growth in check…this surely cannot be the whole story.

Educated free societies also are more likely to encourage women away from home-making to the business arena.

Educated free societies tend to see children as a hindrance to personal fulfillment.

And, I surmise, educated free societies will be the most receptive to technological forms of sex—where an individual feels liberated enough to enjoy a sexual experience free from the emotional bonds of human-human relationships and even more so, free from the risk of getting (someone) pregnant.

Stir this pot together and what you have is a reshaping of the world, for better or worse. I repeat that this current trend is not due to a few dudes playing Destiny on their virtual reality headsets with their dorm buddies. But, I strenuously argue that the technologies coming down the pike in 10-20 years will parlay the gentle rise in the current tide into the monsters of Teahupo’o.

teahupoo

Sex won’t go out of style. Of course not. But if a society dislocates sex from its central purpose of building and maintaining family bonds and procreation, then sex becomes an affair of the individual in pursuit of simple hedonism: a physical pleasure that can be reconstructed through a variety of artificial means. It becomes an essentially selfish act: how to experience pleasure, how to explore one’s own sexuality without another person’s intrusion, how to play out personal fantasies without the vulnerability that human-human sex absolutely requires. Sex loses that which makes it sexy…the lack of control.

Sex builds kingdoms. Lack of it (or perversion of it) destroys them. It’s as simple as demographics. So what should the message of the Church be in the midst of such overwhelming sea change?

watermark

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Birds, Bees, and Brain Bytes

drone2This post is part 2 of a 4-part series on the future of sexuality. Much of this discussion requires a mature approach, so handle with care. You can read part 1 here.

Last week, I made a rather strange claim that human-robot sexual relationships will soon make their way into the mainstream of American society. This is not the stuff of sexual fetishes or Blade Runner-style science fiction, but a careful calculation based on the exponential surges in digital/AI technologies and the constant of human nature. Today, I want to elaborate on this calculation, presenting you with three observations that will serve as this week’s dish: 1) What robots are doing already; 2) some societal reasons for believing this future is near inevitable; and 3) a roadblock here or there.

First, let me tell you of the ways that the robotics industry is making an enormous impact in the here-and-now of civilized society.

  • In Singapore, Nanyang Technological University has recently live-tested ‘Nadine,’ a fully humanoid robot that works as a secretary. Nadine must be able to give accurate instructions, recognize repeat visitors, and hold several conversations at once. She can shake your hand and has her own set of emotions, but honestly, she looks like a bad wax museum mock-up of a Dunder Mifflin grunt.
  • For several years now, Japan has been using humanoid robots and robotic pets to serve as therapeutic companions for elderly people. Japan’s low birth rates have led to some serious need for such devices. The sales figures for worldwide domestic robots are expected to exceed $10 billion annually in 2016. That’s a lot of spider rolls.
  • The researchers at Johns Hopkins have built robotic arms that can be attached to a person’s torso—controlled entirely by thought. One particular subject lost his arms as a result of an accident in his youth, and now as a double-amputee can perform many of the physical maneuvers he was able to do 40 years ago.
  • The use of nanotechnology (really, really small machines) is already in widespread development for military purposes. Drones that are essentially the size and shape of local fauna—birds, bugs, etc. –allow covert intelligence gathering without the need for human risk. Despite their small stature, these drones have a ridiculous amount of technology under-girding their function. If our military can squeeze such an immense amount of function out of a machine that can fits in a ring box and weighs less than a post-it note, what could the private sector do with near-unlimited funds and a simple mandate: to create a robot that convinces a person of its own personhood, even its own discreet sexuality?drone1

You may be skeptical at this point. You know what my next question/statement is: Is it any surprise that robots built specifically for sexual purposes are closer than we think? Sure, we can program a robot to vacuum a floor or mow the yard, but sexuality is qualitatively different than the performance of some rote housework. It’s comparing apples to algorithms. …and you’d be right. Kind of.

Sexuality is fundamentally different than the performance of tasks, for several reasons. First, sex in a classic sense is tied to deep relational bonding and procreation. Bonding with a robot is certainly plausible, but procreating with one is (at least for the time being) utterly inconceivable (<-pun). Second, human sexuality is bound to deeper questions of identity. I, in part, know who I am because of the body I’ve been given by God. To engage a robot sexually would be to challenge the complementary characteristics found in my species, my humanness. In a way, the sharing of sexual experience would be a betrayal of what makes me, in part, a man. But, I have to say, if sexuality is reduced to a set of pleasurable sensations–which, by the way, is how much of the world sees it–then nothing should prevent a person from seeking out ways to manufacture these sensations. Sex toys were made for this precise purpose.

Aren’t robotic sexual companions simply sex toys on a grander scale?

Here are the reasons society will embrace these now and future techs for the purposes of sexual fulfillment. For a more comprehensive list, check out David Levy’s and/or Andy Clark’s work, cited below [1][2]):

  • The ever-increasing proximity we’ll have to humanoid robots and VR systems. Proximity is one of the key features of both companionship and romantic love. Lots of studies confirm this, but I’ll try to lay it out in a few sentences. We tend to fall for those who we see regularly. Sure, an end result of romantic love might not come to fruition (e.g., entering the ‘Friend Zone’), but the ongoing affection is borne out of regular, everyday contact. If we have robotics as a part of our day-to-day lives and we begin to sense these robots have original personalities, there is no doubt that some owners will begin to wonder if a relationship can indeed blossom, even if the object of affection is mostly wires and transistors.
  • The wall between inanimate objects and living beings is less present in our children, who have relatively few qualms about treating computerized personalities as something other than ‘real.’ Some people call this the human capacity for ‘enchantment.’ In other words, because most people have almost no knowledge of how a computer actually works, users are prone to experience a measure of enchantment, a pleasure that is derived from a surprising or from a novel experience. Adults, at least, can place themselves at a certain distance from their tools. Kids? Not so much. Uncoiling a kid from a worldview that has never not known human-computer relationships will prove to be a complex task, especially when few authoritative voices are suggesting that such a view of technology might actually be a harmful thing.
  • Our propensity for anthropomorphizing everything, including the relationship we have with our devices. By this term, I simply mean how easily we ascribe human characteristics to non-human objects, even computer programs. How many of us have played the computer card game ‘Hearts,’ only to say a phrase directed to no one in particular, ‘Oh, she’s going to play that queen, I know it.’ Or, ‘If I play this, then he’s going to know what I’m trying to do…’ Eddie Izzard, the eccentric British comedian, absolutely kills it on this point. The heavy anthropomorphism–and the f-bombs–hit their stride at the 3:00 mark.

Creating a world of humanlike personality allows us to understand a world that is cold and indifferent to our emotion; by treating something like a person, we imbibe the object/pet/thing with a telos and deeper value. Conversely, when a person wants to dehumanize something or someone, the first order of business is to remove any sense of name, humanity, or purpose from the target. Hence, numbers for names in Birkenau.

  • Due to increased elegance in computer programming and society’s general lust for consumerism, the central human-computer relationship is no longer master-slave or owner-servant. Our phones and computers are being personalized in ways like never before. Operating systems are designed so that you feel like your individual machine has its own personality and way-of-being. The former way of thinking is that software/hardware construction exists to perform a task with precision and efficiency. The new way is to build designs that move beyond sheer brute force task completion in order to better address the human user as a human. The way to do this is to construct designs with personality, emotion, and an eye for the spontaneous. I’m willing to bet large that Siri’s design team spent every bit as much time on its (her?) delivery, snarkiness, and tone of voice than the information algorithms that Siri uses to give us the up-to-date score on the Spurs-Warriors game.curve
  • Robots can be programmed to look for a variety of desirable traits. Is there an actual difference between a robot that speaks at though it has interest in a person, and one who actually has interest? If a robot can be programmed to draw out the qualities of personality and/or shared interest, the temptation will be to remove the suspension of disbelief and treat the robot as a person. Maybe not as a human, but still as a person. It is a small step, then, from treating a robot this way to actually developing real feelings for it, whether those feelings are gratitude, respect, romance, and/or sexual attraction.

I’m guessing you probably gave your first car or first guitar a name. The Beast. The Blue Bomber. Tina. Whatever. The reason you did it is because: 1) you were always in it; 2) it had idiosyncrasies that either frustrated or charmed you; and 3) your history is built into the fabric of the car. The car took you to your first date, it was present when you got your first fender bender, and it kept you warm and dry when it was cold and wet outside. No, this does not mean you want to know your car (like the biblical way of ‘knowing’)…but it does illustrate how easily you bond with objects that cannot real-ly share in your corporate identity.

“Uncoiling a kid from a worldview that has never not known human-computer relationships will prove to be a complex task, especially when few authoritative voices are suggesting that such a view of technology might actually be a harmful thing.”

A robotic sex companion will have stunning features that tempt, cajole and alter our sense of reality. As the quality of programming in voice recognition and speech continues to rise at exponential levels, domestic robots will make you laugh and think—precisely because programmers will move from functional programming to emotional programming. Robots will be able to recognize when to flatter you and when to encourage you. With each successive behavior, the owner will shed its commitment to seeing the robot as a device only and begin to treat it as a friend, family member, or (of course) as a lover.

I’m not trying to weird you out. I’m trying to show you that, even if there is some initial resistance to the thought of robot-human relationships that are rounding second and heading to third, at some point society will lose its ethical scruples about such a game in the first place. The Church will be a lonely voice in the wilderness.

Perhaps the Church will need to be there…out in the desert eating bugs and wearing camel skin…freakishly counter-cultural. Welcoming those who desire a baptism into something entirely new and authentic, free from the tangle of a million nano-tethers (or one tether, full-sized and ready to go).

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[1] David Levy, Love+Sex With Robots (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).
[2] Andy Clark, Natural Born Cyborgs (New York: Oxford, 2003).
*These are old tomes by now. However, both texts are good at presenting some of the key reasons why we are naturally oriented to build relationships with devices.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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